The B2 Language Exam Requirement That (Mostly) Won’t go Away

Analysis

Judit Enczi

The B2-level language exam is the most popular state-accredited exam taken in Hungary, and for good reason. According to the country’s Law on Higher Education, university students can only receive their degrees when they hold a B2 level qualification in at least one foreign language.

This legal requirement has led to problems. But first, what does a B2 represent?

According to the Council of Europe, the body behind the CEFR grading system, a level B2 certificate means the holder “Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization. Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.”

What are the issues in Hungary? First and foremost, critics say the state school system does not educate enough children to B2 level in a foreign language.

Judit Enczi, managing partner at executive search firm Hill International Hungary, says this affects her both professionally and personally. While her recruitment work is within Hungary, when she meets foreign newcomers within the Hill network, “be they graduates, trainees or seniors, they all speak much better English than most of my colleagues in Hungary,” she says.

Meanwhile, her 10-year-old son has only just started learning English at a state school. “They used to begin teaching languages at the age of 6-7, but the school does not have enough teachers. Hungary needs both better and more language education,” she argues, although she does believe that between the ages of 10-18, teachers “do a good job”.

Zoltán Rozgonyi, managing director of Euroexam International and chairman of Nyelvtudásért, an association of language teaching and testing professionals, says only 15-20% of secondary schools manage to educate students up to the B2 level.

“It’s only the real cream at the top of the secondary school segment that consistently manage to take willing students, obviously those willing to learn, to this level,” he says. This results in 45% of university students starting their undergraduate courses without any foreign language qualification.

Language Requirement

The government attempted to address this issue with a move in 2015 requiring all university entrants from 2020 to attain a B2 language exam, but according to Rozgonyi, then did “absolutely nothing about it” by way of preparing schools to meet the requirement. As a result, in the fall of 2019, it was suddenly rescinded, thus removing a major incentive for serious language study.

(The Ministry of Human Capacities failed to respond when requested by the Budapest Business Journal to comment on this for this story.)

Moreover, once the students begin their degree studies, in the vast majority of cases, the universities make no attempt to teach, or even help students fix the linguistic hole.

“The universities don’t think it’s their problem: they have zillions of problems as it is, and they don’t care about this,” says Rozgonyi. This has resulted in some 7,000-8,000 students graduating every year in their main subject, but unable to receive their degree certificate for lack of a B2 language qualification.

While some of these went on to achieve the B2 level language qualification, many did not. The issue was “solved” last summer, when the government, under the cloak of the COVID pandemic, again suddenly lifted this requirement.

“There was absolutely no logic to this. There had been a 6-7 week [hiatus] in examinations in the spring, but after this, exams were once again being set,” says Rozgonyi.

Decade Wait

Whatever, degree certificates were then “dished out” to nearly 100,000 very relieved graduates, some of whom had been waiting over a decade for the piece of paper.

However, unlike the B2 entry requirement for universities, dropped permanently the previous fall, the decision to lift the B2 qualification for graduates to receive degrees was only temporary.

“We learned from the media, when a journalist got an answer to his questions, that from this year the B2 language certificate will still be needed to get your degree,” says Rozgonyi.

Hence, from this summer, unless the government again changes its mind, the problem of graduates lacking their final degrees, will build up again.

“This is a long term problem, requiring a long-term solution,” says Rozgonyi, “Unfortunately, most politicians, not just in Hungary, don’t think in the long-term.”

Hungary’s Most Popular Foreign Languages Examined

English and German together are by far the most popular languages to study in Hungary, at least with regards to recognized qualifications. Together they account for an astonishing 91% of all candidates sitting state-accredited examinations.

Indeed, English alone takes a two-thirds slice of the linguistic pie, according to an analysis of data over 15 years, says Zoltán Rozgonyi, chairman of Nyelvtudásért, an association of language teaching and testing professionals.

Equally surprising, the third most popular language exam is Esperanto. However, Rozgonyi argues this is an anomaly, based on false beliefs.

“Esperanto being third biggest is a joke; it’s simply the result of most universities accepting it to fulfil the degree requirement, along with a myth many believe that it is much faster to get to the B2 level in Esperanto,” he told the BBJ.

In 2019, the last year before the pandemic struck, the only other languages with more than 1,000 exam candidates were Spanish and Lovári (Romani).

Given that the average price to take a B2 level examination (by far the most popular exam) is HUF 35,000, not an inconsequential sum for most, it is important to achieve success. Of almost 124,500 candidates in 2019, 82,367 (66% of the total) achieved pass grades.

Close study of the statistics also reveals the “worst language” in terms of number of failed candidates as a percentage of the total. Last year, 18,868 failed their English exams, a seemingly large number, but with 65,000 candidates in total it equates to a 29% failure rate, i.e. better than the 34% average. (More positively, it represents a 71% pass rate.) German appears a bit tougher, with a 36% failure rate.

But, to underline Rozgonyi’s “myth” theory about the ease of passing Esperanto, a shocking 1,121 failed exams in the invented language in 2019, equating to a failure rate of 60%. Last year, while the overall numbers were smaller, the results were even worse, with 70% of candidates missing the target. The message couldn’t be clearer: learning Esperanto is definitely not the easy way to a B2 language qualification.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of February 12, 2021.

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